strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Elephant Poo Air Conditioning

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 23, 2012

Dung beetle in booties

Apparently, elephant excrement is the next best thing to a Frigidaire window unit, if you are a dung beetle, according to researchers studying how the beetles roll balls of dung across the desert to their nest, in South Africa:

“The beetles climb on top of their moist balls whenever their front legs and heads overheat,” said Prof. Marcus Byrne from Wits University. “We stumbled upon this behaviour by accident while watching for an ‘orientation dance’ which the beetles perform on top of their balls to work out where they’re going. We noticed that they climbed their balls much more often in the heat of the midday sun.”

Further experiments showed that this midday phenomenon only held true when the beetles were crossing hot ground. In fact, beetles on hot soil climb their balls seven times as often as those on cooler ground.

To show that it was the beetles’ hot legs that made them climb the ball, the researchers applied some cool (as in temperature) silicone boots to their front legs as alternative protection from the heat. “To our great surprise, this actually worked, and beetles with boots on climbed their balls less often,” said Dr Jochen Smolka from Lund University, who collaborated on the research.

You have to love any study that involves putting booties on dung beetles.  And one last bit of ickiness:

Once on top of a ball at midday, the beetles were often seen “wiping their faces,” a preening behavior that the researchers suspect spreads regurgitated liquid onto their legs and head to cool them down further. That’s something the insects never do at other times of day.

Source:  Jochen Smolka, Emily Baird, Marcus J. Byrne, Basil el Jundi, Eric J. Warrant, Marie Dacke. Dung beetles use their dung ball as a mobile thermal refuge. Current Biology, 2012; 22 (20): R863 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.057

Posted in Cool Tools | Leave a Comment »

Continental Drift Science: From Heresy to Jail Time

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 22, 2012

A few months back, I profiled the scientist who discovered continental drift.  The Smithsonian Magazine version of the story opened this way:

In a courtroom in Italy, six seismologists and a civil servant are facing charges of manslaughter for failing to predict a 2009 earthquake that killed 308 people in the Apennine Mountain city of L’Aquila. The charge is remarkable partly because it assumes that scientists can now see not merely beneath the surface of the earth, but also into the future. What’s even more extraordinary, though, is that the prosecutors put such faith in a scientific insight that was, not so long ago, the object of open ridicule.

So now, an Italian court has convicted the seismologists and packed them off to jail for six years for the crime of having given false assurances in the days before the earthquake.  It’s an astonishing decision, and especially ironic on the hundredth anniversary of the fundamental theory underlying all geology.  The theory of continental drift, proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912, was considered scientific heresy for much of the twentieth century.  Now it gets you jail time.

The sentencing has caused deep dismay in the scientific community and on the internet.  On Twitter, @dbasch says, “Being a seismologist in a country that doesn’t understand science is a risky job. This is insane.”  (Looking on the bright side, he’s not talking about the United States, for once.)

And @seamusmccauley says,  “Italy’s remaining seismologists unanimously predict daily earthquakes at all locations for the next 500 years.”

You can read my continental drift story–and weep for Alfred Wegener–here.

Posted in Environmental Issues, Fear & Courage | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Splitsville with Constantine Raffinesque

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 22, 2012

Today’s the birthday of Constantine Rafinesque (1783-1840), a notorious “splitter.”  What did he split?

1.  He split his specimens for easy storage.

2.  He split established species into several new species.

3.  He split wood.

4.  He split collections to sell to different museums.

And the answer is

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in The Species Seekers | 1 Comment »

Back to the Essence

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 22, 2012

Robert Frost (1874-1963)









The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, has just opened a show called “Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets,” and it reminds me of the intimate connection between poetry and a love of the natural world.   People who become biologists tend to get caught up in taxonomy, or population dynamics, or even, good lord, ecosystem services, and these are all important enough.   But it’s good to get back to the essence.  So here’s Frost’s celebrated poem “Birches”:

WHEN I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them         5
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells         10
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed         15
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.         20
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—         25
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone. Read the rest of this entry »

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Duelling with a Flick-Knife Frog

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 19, 2012

Flick knife (by yunalee)

A Japanese researcher (and presumptive anime fan) has revealed how a frog can flick out sharp spikes from a false thumb for both combat and mating.

Noriko Iwai from the University of Tokyo, studied the Otton frog (Babina subaspera), on the Amami islands in southern Japan.  Unlike most frogs, Otton has a fifth digit, a sort of pseudo-thumb, containing the switchblade spikes.  Science Daily reports that the thumb serves mainly to hang onto the female in the muddy throes of amphibian love-making:

“While the pseudo-thumb may have evolved for mating, it is clear that they’re now used for combat,” said Dr Iwai. “The males demonstrated a jabbing response with the thumb when they were picked up, and the many scars on the male spines provided evidence of fighting.”

The conditions on the Amami islands make combat, and the need for weaponry, a key factor for the frogs’ mating success. Individuals fight over places to build nests, while the chances of a male finding a mate each night are rare, thus the ability to fight off competitors may be crucial.

Sadly, the frogs don’t face off as in the rumble scene from “West Side Story”  (or, to stick with anime, like Spike versus Vicious).  Instead, they Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools, Sex & Reproduction | 2 Comments »

Danger Ahead: Business as Nature’s Savior

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 18, 2012

Here’s my latest article for Yale Environment 360.

Ecosystem services is not exactly a phrase to stir the human imagination. But over the past few years, it has managed to dazzle both diehard conservationists and bottom-line business types as the best answer to global environmental decline.

For proponents, the logic is straightforward: Old-style protection of nature for its own sake has badly failed to stop the destruction of habitats and the dwindling of species. It has failed largely because philosophical and scientific arguments rarely trump profits and the promise of jobs. And conservationists can’t usually put enough money on the table to meet commercial interests on their own terms. Pointing out the marketplace value of ecosystem services was initially just a way to remind people what was being lost in the process — benefits like flood control, water filtration, carbon sequestration, and species habitat. Then it dawned on someone that, by making it possible for people to buy and sell these services, we could save the world and turn a profit at the same time.

But the rising tide of enthusiasm for PES (or payment for ecosystem services) is now also eliciting alarm and criticism. The rhetoric is at times heated, particularly in Britain, where a government plan to sell off national forests had to be abandoned in the face of fierce public opposition. (The government’s own expert panel also found that it had “greatly undervalued” what it was proposing to sell.) Writing recently in The Guardian, columnist and land rights activist George Monbiot denounced PES schemes as “another transfer of power to corporations and the very rich.” Also writing in The Guardian, Tony Juniper, a conservationist and corporate consultant, replied in effect that Monbiot and other critics should shut up, on the grounds that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Business Behaviors, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | 1 Comment »

You Lookin’ at Me?

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 16, 2012

Borneo long-nosed frog

The Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, The Netherlands, has recently completed a species-finding expedition in Borneo, turning up at least 160 new species.  Here’s part of the press release:

The largest numbers of new species were found among the spiders and fungi. Other new species include true bugs, beetles, snails, stalk-eyed flies, damselflies, ferns, termites and possibly a frog. Also a new location of the spectacular pitcher plant Nepenthes lowii has been found.

New blue fungus

For the fungi experts, the area was an Eldorado. József Geml: “While the plant and animal life of this mountain has been the focus of numerous research projects, Kinabalu has remained terra incognita for scientific studies on fungi. It is difficult not to feel overwhelmed by this task. One of the manifestations of this diversity comes in the endless variety of shapes and colors that sometimes are truly breathtaking. While the detailed scientific work will take years, we already know that many of these species are new to science.”

Atlas Moth from Borneo

You can read more and check out a few more photos here.

Posted in Biodiversity, The Species Seekers | 2 Comments »

The Wallace-over-Darwin Groundswell

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 15, 2012

Wallace over Darwin, on the arms of a biologist at Auburn University (Photo: Richard Conniff)

OK, I confess, I deliberately posed this picture to put Wallace on top.  But, sad to say, there’s also an obvious forensic clue in the photograph indicating that Darwin came first.  If you spot the clue, please say so in comments.

And if you are completely feckin’ baffled by what I am going on about, Alfred Russel Wallace was the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection.  But unlike Darwin, he had the balls to say it out loud.  A letter from Wallace explaining his ideas in 1858 is what finally drove Darwin to publish the theory for which he had been gathering evidence over the previous 20 years.  The question of whether Wallace or Darwin deserves credit for the biggest idea in the history of science remains hotly contested, though largely by people who admire them both.  (You can read about it in my book The Species Seekers.)

Meanwhile, in other Wallace news, the world’s leading Wallace maven, George Beccaloni, recently updated his list of species named after Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Social Status, The Species Seekers | 5 Comments »

Out with the Big Fish

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 14, 2012

Blue Marlin by James Prosek

Author and artist James Prosek and I are working together on a National Geographic project.  So I was interested to see that he has a show that just opened at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Here’s part of the press release for the new show, which runs till Jan. 21:

PHILADELPHIA (October 3, 2012) – James Prosek has had a personal experience with each of the saltwater fish he has painted and hand-picked for a new exhibit opening Oct. 13 at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

“You could even call each one a self-portrait,” said the Connecticut naturalist, artist and fisherman whose latest book, Ocean Fishes: Paintings of Saltwater Fish, debuted this month (Rizzoli New York). Fourteen life-size watercolors from the book, including a stunning 15-foot-long Blue Marlin, are featured in the exhibit James Prosek: Ocean Fishes in the Art of Science Gallery through Jan. 21. The exhibit is free with museum admission.

Dubbed “the Audubon of the fishing world” by The New York Times, Prosek wants visitors to know that his highly-detailed paintings of Atlantic sailfish, king mackerel, mako shark, swordfish, and more are not meant to represent a species as in a field guide. “I am painting an individual fish that I had a personal experience with,” he said. “The paintings are not as much about the fish as our relationships as humans to the fish.”

The show is based on Prosek’s new book, Ocean Fishes.  Here’s an excerpt:

If I try to pinpoint exactly where this project started, it would have to be when I stopped at a Citgo station in Cape Cod, to inquire about an old, red Chevy truck for sale in the lot in 2001. It was there I met the owner, Norman St. Pierre, in his office. On the office wall were the most intriguing photos of a man standing on a platform that reached far off the bow of a boat, throwing a spear at what looked like a very big fish. There were also photos of a deck full of giant bluefin tuna, 700- to 900-pound fish that dwarfed the fisherman standing over them. I could not believe these fish were so huge, much bigger than big men. They looked like sculptures—polished marble sides, glistening steel backs, fins like blades of metal, eyes like miniature Earths with atmospheres and seas and forests and deserts. Besides running the gas station, Norman was a tuna spotter—a pilot who flew his small Cessna over the ocean, spotting giant bluefin tuna and directing a harpoon boat to the fish. After a brief conversation, in which I evidently voiced my passion for fishes, Norman offered to take me up in the plane the following summer, and to ask the fishermen he worked with if Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | 1 Comment »

The Minister Who Invented the Modern Bullet

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 11, 2012

The year of 1807 was better for hunters than birds.  In the wetlands north of Aberdeen, Scotland, a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Alexander Forsyth, was engaged in a war of wits with local ducks.

They’d figured out how to dodge a shot by diving when the spark from his flintlock produced a flash of gunpowder in the firing pan of his muzzle-loader.  Dampness on the North Sea coast also frequently caused Forsyth’s weapon to misfire.

After much tinkering, he devised and patented the first percussion-ignition device, a sort of metal perfume bottle for injecting a tiny amount of mercury fulminate into the chamber of the gun, where the impact of a hammer could ignite it and spark the gunpowder charge far more reliably (and without alarming the birds).

Forsyth’s invention, patented in 1807, would lead by mid-century to the development of the metal percussion cap and the modern bullet.  It would prove an essential tool for species seekers, particularly in wet climates—and also the chief instrument of the bloodiest military conflicts in the history of the Earth, from Gettysburg and Gallipoli to the Somme.

Posted in Kill or Be Killed | 1 Comment »